Former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf’s return after four years of self-exile did not dominate the Pakistani media the way it should have, considering the fact that he had ruled the country for nine years. Even following his arrest, except for the brief top slots on TV channels, he did not figure prominently in the print media in Pakistan. Contrary to that, Musharraf and his return was continuously splashed over the front pages in Kashmir’s media – both in Urdu and English. He also occupied a “better” space in Indian mainstream media, obviously for the reasons that Pakistan Army is a “favourite” subject for a vast section in print and electronic media.
In Kashmir, any development in Pakistan is covered by the media extensively. The reason being that Kashmiri readers have a special interest in Pakistan and its affairs. For the past 65 years, Pakistan has been and continues to be part of the discourse over Kashmir and a party to the “dispute” between India and Pakistan. A third of the state of Jammu and Kashmir is under its control and its role in political upheavals in Kashmir particularly after 1989 are not hidden.
There are many reasons why Musharraf and any development in regard to him is followed in Kashmir. Although many Kashmiris believe he diluted the “real issue”; a sizeable population in Jammu and Kashmir see him as a peace-maker. During my personal interactions with many Pakistani friends they would take umbrage to “Musharraf being popular among Kashmiris”. The reason is simple that they would see him as a “dictator” who “throttled democracy” to remain in power. But those in Kashmir who have a liking for Musharraf have seen him as one who departs from the “stated” track the successive Pakistani governments had adopted vis-à-vis Kashmir. They would also see a practical direction to the process of resolution to Kashmir issue during Musharraf’s rule. Putting the “old rhetoric and war mongering” into the backdrop, Musharraf would talk about out-of-the-box solutions to reach an agreement on Kashmir. And in today’s Pakistan, the Kashmir issue figures nowhere in the election campaign as the leaders of traditional parties such as Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) have the economy and internal stability as the main planks rather than the jugular vein. Ironically, these leaders while critical of Musharraf’s Kashmir policy have completely abandoned the “much loved Kashmir cause”.
“The reason Musharraf gets extensive coverage in Kashmir is that his was the time of happening as for as the dispute is concerned”, opines Tahir Mohiuddin, editor of Urdu daily Chattan. “He surely did something practical and that is why the interest of readers in knowing about him”. Not only had people pinned hopes on Musharraf- (AB) Vajpayee combination on Kashmir resolution, but the separatists (except for hard-liner Syed Ali Shah Geelani) were on board in supporting his policies.
Musharraf being discussed in both the traditional and social media in Kashmir is linked to a drastic change that was witnessed in Indo-Pak relations during his time. He was the first Pakistan Army Chief who from being a staunch anti-India general ended up becoming the top peacemaker – that too with the country against which he planned Kargil. Although not defiant about what he did in 1999, he still changed the course of history and laid the foundation for a peace process. Confidence Building Measures such as bus services across the divided Jammu and Kashmir and trade across the Line of Control (LoC) are two important milestones the peace process achieved. Ceasefire along the LOC which facilitated the return of tens of thousands of people on both sides is something which those who were continuously living under threat of cross border shelling for more than 15 years, cannot forget.
By 2003, Kashmiris were fed up with the violence and iron-hand methods by New Delhi had taken a huge toll on them though they were forced to take up the gun due to continued moves to trample democratic rights. They also got convinced that the solution to the vexed issue was near and interlocutors on both sides had gained ground on that. Even Khurshid Kasuri, then Foreign Minister under Musharraf’s rule, went to the extent of saying that “we were close to inking the agreement”.
This hope had made Musharraf relevant in Kashmir and that is why the interest in knowing about him. Kashmiris believe that a solution to the problem cannot be achieved overnight and a step-by-step approach was the only way to reach a level of agreement, notwithstanding the inflexibility New Delhi has exhibited for so long. And Musharraf had moved in the direction of dealing with the issue with a step-by-step approach.
Notwithstanding the media coverage Musharraf gets in Kashmir, there is disagreement in social media among Kashmiris. While many see him as a “saviour”, not only for Kashmir but for Pakistan too, there are voices who are critical of him for being a dictator. Irrespective of the fact that Musharraf tried to get Pakistan’s middle class out of the clutches of a democracy “chained by fuedal lords and waderas” by introducing the concept of basic democracy through the electoral reforms and by creating avenues for them in media and services, many Kashmiris still see the traditional democracy as the “best way for Pakistan” to be stabilised. A well-known Kashmiri columnist Arjimand Hussain Talib’s post on Facebook invited a barrage of mixed comments – “I pity Pakistan’s judiciary and irresponsible media (with due respects to media friends there). Musharraf stands out as a ruler in Pakistan’s history who was not corrupt, took decisions in the best interests of his nation in the given circumstances, gave the country a free media, a vibrant civil society, reformed political system. And now the same systems humiliate him, are out to destroy him. I increasingly wonder if democracy really suits that country”.
Many blamed him for all the evils in Pakistan but many praised him for being a reformer. Without naming Arjimand or others, another Kashmiri journalist Gowhar Geelani pooh-poohed this positive thinking about Musharraf on his FB status – “I wasn’t amazed one bit to read some articles in Kashmir press favouring military dictator Musharaff’s policies of ruling a country for a decade against the wishes of the people. Mush fans want people to forget what the man did like deposing as many as 60 senior judges, including the Chief Justice of Pakistan, suggesting a flexible four-point formula for solving Kashmir dispute, ordering operation Lal Masjid, entering into a secret covenant with the US government to bomb tribals in Pakistan (drone attacks), declaring emergency in Pakistan. All of these undemocratic, unethical and dictatorial practices are being defended by some so-called writers in Kashmir, and instead of condemning these they seem to be suggesting that Mush provided stability to Pakistan and therefore should not be tried or punished for his misdeeds! Great analysis…! Keep it up!”.
In response to Gowhar one comment by Shenaz Yousuf was – “Going by the ‘popular’ sentiment, Musharraf is a saint not even recognised by his own countrymen. But we Kashmiris know him like no one does. Such a sad saga”.
Whatever way Musharraf is treated or seen by Pakistanis, for Kashmir his rule was certainly something which brought relief and opened up a new window for addressing Kashmir. So for the media too, it is difficult to ignore him. Otherwise also, Pakistan and politics in that country is closely followed in Kashmir, for the reason that any development in Pakistan has an impact on the happenings here. Musharraf has a place in the context of Kashmir’s legacy which continues to remain a “dispute” between India and Pakistan.
Image by: Swarnabha Bannerjee